If you're 17 and reside in a backward backwater in Pennsylvania, your choices are slim, especially if you're alone and pregnant. That's the situation a bitter, angry Autumn Callahan finds herself in at the start of Eliza Hittman's harrowing "Never Rarely Sometimes Always." And the source of Autumn's ire are men; or, should I say boys: the ones who rule the household, the ones who make the laws denying a woman control over her body, and the ones who irresponsibly insist on having sex without a condom.
Autumn has been victimized by all three, and that's not including the ones who believe it their privilege to hit on her and other women without conscience. Oh, yeah, and the grocery store manager who vetoes Autumn's request to go home a couple of hours early when morning sickness overcomes her while manning the check-out line. For Autumn, it's a man's world, and she, for one, is sick (literally) and tired of it. Defiance is not only on her mind; it's her mission.
Thus begins a nightmarish 72-hour odyssey into the great unknown of taking charge of her life by recruiting her best friend and cousin, Skylar, and buying a couple of bus tickets to New York City, where abortion is not only readily available but free of all the medieval hoops states like Pennsylvania force desperate women and girls to jump through. But New York is also an immense, sprawling city full of enough dangers to test the wits and tenacity of two relatively naive teenagers strapped for cash.
Holding nothing back, Hittman rivetingly chronicles the hellishness of their predicament, from nutty, hypocritical anti-abortion advocates to a Harvey Weinstein wannabe "treating" Autumn to a display of public masturbation on the IRT. But her camera, manned (poor choice of words) by Hélène Louvart, also finds significantly more gratifying displays in the compassion and sympathy of others, including a geeky masher (Theodore Pellerin) the cousins meet who isn't nearly as creepy as he initially seems.
It's those streaks of optimism that lift Hittman's Berlin Film Festival-winner into the lofty company of another masterwork about abortion, Cristian Monjiu's "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days." In fact, Hittman readily admits Monjiu's film was her inspiration for making "Never Rarely Sometimes Always;" but not for the reasons you might think. Turns out she thought Monjiu was too harsh on his movie's heroine, a slight Hittman is resolute to rectify, which she does with an awe-inspiring assist from newcomer Sidney Flanagan, an aspiring punk rocker she discovered on Facebook, and daringly cast in the lead role of Autumn.
You wouldn't suspect Flanagan had never acted before after absorbing her sneakily subtle, yet powerful, evocation of a scared teenager armed with a suitcase full of resourcefulness and moxie. Provided with the sparsest of dialogue, Flanagan does all of her intoxicating acting via eyes, posture and expressions. Never once do you see her Autumn smile, and only once dissolve into tears, that moment being in a wrenching session with her abortion counselor at Planned Parenthood, where she's asked a series of multiple-choice questions she must answer, per the film's title, "never, rarely, sometimes, always."
For Autumn, it's mostly head down, never stop, and Flanagan communicates that brilliantly. Even better, she gets to incorporate her main love, singing - twice! The first is at the very start of the film, where she's taking part in a 1950s-themed school talent show. While her clueless classmates are playing up the kitsch, she's the Debbie Downer, singing - like a dirge - the old chestnut "He's Got the Power" by The Exciters. Even better is an impromptu bit of karaoke, when she unexpectedly finds herself in a Brooklyn bowling alley singing Gerry and the Pacemakers' biggest hit, "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying." I don't know about you, but that scene sure caught me crying. Might Oscar voters have the same reaction toward this talented novice? We shall see.
And while they're at it, they should also take note of another freshman phenom in Talia Ryder as Autumn's devoted wing gal, Skylar. She doesn't get to sing. She'll get her chance to do that later this year playing a Jet in Steven Spielberg's remake of "West Side Story." For now, though, just bask in the power of her ability to heighten a slight role into something memorable. Like Autumn, her Skylar is a budding young woman of few words but irrepressible smarts. And the chemistry the two young actresses share is a marvel.
Like everything in "Never Rarely Sometimes Always," their partnership boils over in truth and realism. In fact, there are times when what you're watching looks every bit like a gritty, on-the-streets documentary. And that verisimilitude enables the quiet, nuanced points Hittman ("Beach Rats") seeks to make about our misogynistic world all the more resonate. And nervy! Most people in the film industry wouldn't think of approaching an issue as divisive as abortion, but thankfully Hittman isn't one of them. She's honest and straightforward about her feelings when it comes to her belief that what a woman does with her body is no one's business but her own.
Will that dedication change minds? I doubt it. But it will certainly make people think and empathize with a young girl like Autumn when her back is against the wall. Will she ever be free of her multitude of male oppressors? Probably not, but you can't help but feel tremendous pride in watching her put up such a valiant, determined fight.
Al Alexander may be reached at email@example.com.